“Dear, oh dear” muttered the new King, Charles III, as he greeted Liz Truss at Buckingham Palace only two weeks ago. The double doors were swung open by a liveried equerry announcing “Prime Minister – Your Majesty”. Ms. Truss bobbed forward to shake hands with the King, and said, ”Your Majesty, great to see you again,” the King smiled as he replied “Back again?” – “Well come along then,” he may have continued – but we missed that bit as, like a patient headmaster, he led the not quite settled in new Prime Minister into another room. Last week – as I began to unpack in Rome – she was back. “Oh dear oh dear.” The King may have said – again.
So Liz Truss was out, holding the seat warm for whoever wanted her place. There were only three takers for the open seating plan at Number Ten Downing Street, and they were not sitting in the stalls. Boris Johnson immediately flew back from his holiday in the Caribbean – reportedly booed as he got on the plane. Rishi Sunak got busy on his phone, emails, or in the tea rooms. Only Penny Mordaunt was seen in the halls of Westminster, looking strong, sensible, and even a little tough. She made me wonder what a woman like her could do if the men in Parliament really backed her. But these men are not the backing kind.
The country was in an uproar as the disaster of Truss’s short-stay-to-let was seen but not averted. Clusters of shoppers were shown tut-tutting at the country markets – always the prettiest picture – as parliamentary plotting – all perfectly legal – continued. A candidate had to have at least 100 Conservative votes to make the ballot for the role of Prime Minister and by the deadline of 2 p.m. on Monday Rishi had 182. Penny conceded at 1.58 p.m. Boris, like a cornered bear, threw in his towel, and lumbered away on Sunday night, declaring ‘this is not the right time’. Let us hope history is remembered and it never becomes his right time again. Sunak was educated at Winchester College, not Eton, and like Avis, it can be hoped that he will ‘try harder’.
The autumn temperature drops day by day and the leaves fall from the London trees only just faster than the Conservative cabinet ministers gathering their pens and papers as they scuttle out of their seats.
In our corner of London the cool morning air smells of sweet ripe apples, from a box of them set out by a neighbor when she returns from her country retreat. I make apple sauce that is as perfect as Bramley apples give before we go to Europe: first to Utrecht with family and an end-of-summer outdoor birthday party, then onto Paris to be with friends. Paris sparkles with the first crispness of autumn sunlight and delight, the streets and buildings shine as they brush off the stale air of summer and the lingerings of Covid. People are cautious and sensible as they move through the streets, mindful of the effects of the Ukrainian war on fuel supplies and costs. The city seems hopeful, bordering on contentment. A restaurant owner brings out a jar of truffles he has just acquired and we laugh in happy expectation of his fine omelets. We are here in the autumn of our lives, cherishing it, for we know our winter is near.
And then it is onto Rome for their Film Festival, showing William Kentridge’s ‘Self Portrait as a Coffee Pot’. We are driven from the airport through the back streets into bulging traffic leading to the Tiber River and the city beyond looking weary, beaten down by the effects of the Covid pandemic. A bad garbage strike after the summer’s heat has left the big street bins battered and tainted with pigeon residue. Finally, we reach The Eden Hotel and from our terraced window we look down on a Rome that doesn’t seem so bruised. Lying in the marble bath at dusk I watch the bats wake up and zoom out from under the tile roof just above me to the park below.
It takes a day – and we only had two – to breathe in the air of this city which I had come to terms with 24 years ago when I joined Walter on location. On our last evening, walking with friends after dinner we passed by an alleyway I remembered. Then, in a store window, three or four prepubescent girls sat cross-legged under a single light bulb. Old Persian rugs hung behind the girls, and their heads were bent low over their hands which were busy, stitching, weaving threads through old worn carpets.
The day we leave, our driver is a woman and I am grateful to see this small step forward for equality in Rome. The road she took out of the city twists and turns and we crossed the river three times. The small riverside shrubs of 24 years ago have grown to trees but still the Tiber moves fast. They say a body tossed into the river is never found. As we left the ancients – looking worn in the grey light – we drove up through the graffiti-clad outskirts of the city. The colors were dusty as they lay scrawled over the lower apartments of these almost middle-class neighborhoods, pulling them down as if in anger that the slums cannot rise but only spread.
The flight to London was full and it was not until we landed and were ready to go through UK passport control that I stopped to use the facilities. There was a poster on the stall door; a young man’s face peering out from a confusion – of a woman’s hand, a car window, and lights, with the words ’Can you see me?’ ‘Slavery Still Exists’. On the way home, amidst catching the stealth movements of our politicians, I thought of those young girls sitting in the shop window and wondered what became of them in the ancient world that is Rome.
This has been A Letter From A. Broad. Written and read for you by Muriel Murch.